As it follows Arjie’s coming of age, Funny Boy also becomes a tale of moral development: Arjie encounters and grapples with blatant injustices that challenge his initial faith in human goodness. Yet, rather than giving up on the idea of a just world and resigning himself to the self-interested worldviews of those around him—including, at times, his own family—Arjie continues to pursue the just world he recognizes as impossible. Nevertheless, in responding to the abuses of power around him, he learns that pressure and manipulation—the very tools of injustice—are often the only way to convince the powerful to give the powerless their due.
Arjie learns early and clearly the world is not just, and in fact that the same adults who claim to be the bearers of morality often fail to choose good over evil. When Arjie and his younger cousin Tanuja (whom he calls "Her Fatness") fight over the sari they use in their game of bride-bride, Ammachi immediately blames Arjie and ignores the rest of the children’s attempts to fully explain the situation. Because Kanthi Aunty had already shamed Arjie for his femininity, Ammachi decides the fight is his fault and makes him do housework instead of playing with the cousins on the family's subsequent Sunday gatherings. Similarly, in the chapter "The Best School of All," Victoria Academy's draconian principal, Black Tie, arbitrarily and cruelly punishes students he calls the "future ills and burdens of Sri Lanka" for offenses like wearing long hair or winking, even as he ignores violent bullying by students like Salgado. And Daryl Uncle’s death shows how such abuses of power play out on a larger scale. The Sri Lankan government targets Daryl for documenting its human rights violations against Tamils, and then refuses to investigate his mysterious death—for which Amma is convinced it is responsible. And Arjie sees another dimension of injustice—his own family's complicity in it—when he learns that his father's hotel is supporting the prostitution of underage boys and, later, goes with Amma to the village of Daryl's servant boy, Somaratne, only to be violently kicked out because the village's impoverished inhabitants are so used to being exploited by wealthy city people like Arjie's family.
While witnessing, experiencing, and learning about his complicity in profound injustices could have easily led Arjie to give up on his faith in good and evil altogether, instead it actually inspires him to pursue the kind of justice he thinks the world deserves. Daryl and Jegan, who dedicate their careers to exposing the Sri Lankan government's abuses of power and helping beleaguered Tamils, respectively, inspire Arjie to try and live with a sense of moral purpose rather than simply following the path of least resistance. And he continues to feel inspired by them even after they suffer horribly for taking moral stands. Due to his respect for both Daryl and Jegan, Arjie takes a prominent role in his family's attempts to save each of them: he insists on helping his mother search for Daryl (including by visiting Somaratne's village) and tries to support Jegan while Appa grapples with the consequences of firing him. In both cases, though, despite his sense of what is right and effort to pursue it, Arjie does not yet have the means to make a difference. His first serious opportunity to stop an abuse of power comes when Black Tie labels Arjie’s friend and lover, Shehan, as one of the so-called "ills and burdens." When Black Tie makes Arjie recite poems, he punishes Arjie and Shehan together whenever Arjie messes up; even though Arjie is ostensibly one of Black Tie's favorites and Shehan one of the “ills and burdens,” their struggle becomes one and the same, and ultimately Arjie ends up deliberately messing up the poems in order to sabotage Black Tie’s important ceremony and ensure that the more docile vice principal, Mr. Lokubandara, takes over Black Tie’s job. In doing so, Arjie willfully disobeys authority for the first time in order to end Shehan’s unjust and unequal punishment.
In fact, by the end of the book, Arjie learns that he must fight those who abuse their power with their own tools: ruthlessness and manipulation. Because they do not care about morality, the perpetrators of injustice do not respond to moral appeals; instead, they must be pressured to correct their ways or be forced out of power. Arjie first learns this in childhood, after Her Fatness ousts him from the game of bride-bride and the adults force him to play cricket with the boys. When reasoning with the adults and cousins fails, Arjie hatches a plot: he hides the bride’s sari, he so seriously disrupts the boys' group that they kick him out of their cricket game, and when Her Fatness agrees to make him the groom in exchange for the sari, he uses his sense of humor to steal his cousins’ attention and ruin her moment, as if to remind her that she is not the game’s legitimate bride. But Arjie truly proves his willingness to fight dirty for the right cause when he deliberately botches his poetry recital at Victoria Academy, which makes Black Tie’s speech based on the poems look nonsensical. The audience breaks out in laughter when Black Tie furiously insults Arjie before dutifully reading the contradictory speech that he had prepared. At the end of the chapter, Black Tie is poised to lose the presidency and stop unfairly punishing Shehan for simply having had long hair on one day months before.
As a tale of moral development, then, Funny Boy is peculiar for showing not only how Arjie gains a moral compass, but also how he realizes that far too much of the adult world seriously lacks one. The systematic injustices Arjie sees in Sri Lanka come from unchecked power, and so he learns to respond to these injustices on the only terms that they know: by doing everything in his power to hold the unaccountable accountable.
Justice, Power, and Moral Awakening ThemeTracker
Justice, Power, and Moral Awakening Quotes in Funny Boy
Her Fatness looked at all of us for a moment and then her gaze rested on me.
“You’re a pansy,” she said, her lips curling in disgust.
We looked at her blankly.
“A faggot,” she said, her voice rising against our uncomprehending stares.
“A sissy!” she shouted in desperation.
It was clear by this time that these were insults.
“Be careful. We Sinhalese are losing patience with you Tamils and your arrogance.”
Radha Aunty didn’t answer for a moment. “Until a few days ago I only thought of Rajan, but now I find myself thinking of Anil as well.”
Mala Aunty sighed. “It’ll never work.”
“But other Sinhalese and Tamil people get married.”
“I know,” Mala Aunty replied, “but they have their parents’ consent.
“If two people love each other, the rest is unimportant.”
“No, it isn’t. Ultimately, you have to live in the real world. And without your family you are nothing.”
“You’re putting your life at risk for nothing,” Amma insisted.
“It’s not nothing,” Daryl Uncle said. “People are being tortured and killed even as we sit in all this opulence.”
As I looked around me, I felt an odd sensation. Our daily routine had been cast away, while the rest of the world was going on as usual. A man I had known, a man who was my mother’s lover, was now dead. I was aware that it was a significant thing, a momentous event in my life even, but, like a newspaper report on an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, it seemed something that happened outside my reality, my world.
“So what must we do?”
“Nothing, my dear,” he said sadly.
Amma looked at him, shocked. “Nothing?” she said.
“These days one must be like the three wise monkeys. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
My father chuckled. “I don’t see any police out there, do you?” He poured himself another drink. “It’s not just our luscious beaches that keep the tourist industry going, you know. We have other natural resources as well.”
“But we are a minority, and that’s a fact of life,” my father said placatingly. “As a Tamil you have to learn how to play the game. Play it right and you can do very well for yourself. The trick is not to make yourself conspicuous. Go around quietly, make your money, and don’t step on anyone’s toes.” […] “It’s good to have ideals, but now you're a man, son.”
“How do you know he’s innocent?” my father asked. “We can’t be a hundred percent sure.”
“You mean you honestly think he’s guilty?” Amma asked, astonished.
My father was silent. We all stared at him, angry and hurt that he would really believe this.
“Look,” my father eventually said, “the best thing is to get as little involved as possible. If they find out that Jegan is connected to the assassination attempt, we could be accused of harboring a terrorist.”
“Nonsense,” Amma said. “Why would they accuse us?”
“These days, every Tamil is a Tiger until proven otherwise.”
"You know,” she said, “I’ve been thinking about emigration.”
My father looked at her in shock.
“Canada and Australia are opening their doors. It would be a good time to apply. For the sake of the children.”
My father shook his head emphatically. “I’ll never emigrate. I’ve seen the way our people live in foreign countries.”
“It’s better than living in this terrible uncertainty.”
He turned to Amma angrily. “How can you want to emigrate? You saw the way our friends lived when we went to America. They come here and flash their dollars around, but over there they’re nothing.”
“It’s not a question of wanting or not wanting to go. We have to think about the children.”
“Don’t worry,” my father said. “Things will work out.”
And then after a while, “Besides, what would I do there? The only job I’d be fit for would be a taxi driver or a petrol station man.”
I was angry by now, but at whom I didn’t know. I thought about my father, but I couldn’t feel angry at him, because, when I remembered that yellowed piece of paper and the promise he had made to Jegan’s father, I actually felt sorry for him. I thought of the number of times he had abandoned his promise, how he had left Jegan in jail overnight, how he had taken the side of the office peon against him, and I wondered if he had actually had a choice in any of these matters. I thought, too, of how Jegan had said that his father was so proud of my father’s achievements, and I wondered what his father would think if he were alive now and could see what a mess everything had come to.
I felt bitter at the thought that the students he punished were probably the least deserving. They were the ones who had broken his rules—no blinking, no licking of lips, no long hair—a code that was unfair. Right and wrong, fair and unfair had nothing to do with how things really were. I thought of Shehan and myself. What had happened between us in the garage was not wrong. For how could loving Shehan be bad? Yet if my parents or anybody else discovered this love, I would be in terrible trouble. I thought of how unfair this was and I was reminded of things I had seen happen to other people, like Jegan, or even Radha Aunty, who, in their own way, had experienced injustice. How was it that some people got to decide what was correct or not, just or unjust? It had to do with who was in charge; everything had to do with who held power and who didn’t.
Chithra Aunty began to cry. Amma went to her and tried to comfort her. There was something ironic about that. Amma comforting Chithra Aunty. Yet I understood it. Chithra Aunty was free to cry. We couldn’t, for if we started we would never stop.